Pushing the thoughts away, he finished the rest of his chores, then made his way to the stream running behind the house. When he was younger, he'd built a dam out of boulders to create a pool deep enough for swimming and had spent many summers playing in it. Over the years he had modified it for a more practical use by building head gates and digging a series of ditches to guide the water to his mother's garden and other places in the yard. Right now, though, he intended to use it as he had as a child. Shedding his clothes, he jumped into the pool.
The icy water stung his skin, and he broke the surface gasping for breath. The quickness with which his fingers began to numb told him it would still be a full month before the water was warm enough to be enjoyed. The springs feeding the creek were obviously still being helped by melting snow.
Shaking the water from his hair, he grabbed the bar of soap from its stone and quickly washed up, then moved to the bank and took his towel from a tree branch. As he dried off, he noticed a basket lying on the ground next to the tree and bent to find a fresh change of clothes inside. He shook his head in admiration at how his mother always managed to be one step ahead of him. It's a good thing too, he thought with a shiver, or I would have been heading back to the house in just this towel.
He pulled on the clean clothes, hung the towel back where it would dry in the breeze, and started down the narrow stone path leading around to the front porch. The freshly turned soil lining the path showed that his mother had planted another row of bulbs. Soon a beautiful row of flowers would be in bloom, boosted, no doubt, by her Gift.
A chorus of angry barks filled the air, and he looked up to see Sam and Jes racing toward the narrow lane leading in from Forest Road. He whistled sharply, and they stopped just short of where the lane opened into the yard. He whistled again and motioned them toward the barn. Reluctantly, they obeyed.
Hend and Matail, two of Brysia's warders, materialized from the trees to see who was coming. A moment later Bornis Pendir, the young blacksmith of Kindel's Grove, rode into the sunlight. His big roan Forge snorted at the departing dogs, rolling his eyes aggressively, and Bornis patted his neck in an attempt to calm him.
Jase started across the lawn. "Hello, Bornis," he called, motioning the warders away.
"Hi, Jase," Bornis replied, reining in and swinging down from the saddle. He released the reins and tapped the roan on the rump. "Forge, sit."
As usual nothing happened, and Jase had to suppress the smile which always threatened to spring up whenever he watched Bornis go through his ritual. The young blacksmith might be strong, but he wasn't very bright. The disparity between brains and brawn made Jase wonder if it was nature's way of balancing things out.
Bornis' thick brows furrowed, and determination creased his face. "Forge, sit," he commanded in a firmer voice. The big roan snorted and moved away, and Bornis shrugged his massive shoulders as he turned to Jase. "Sorry, Jase. Forge just isn't very well-behaved."
"That's all right," Jase said with a grin. "I don't think my mother will care as long as he doesn't chase the cat."
Bornis looked at Forge. "I won't let him."
Jase watched the big roan walk to the trough near the front of the barn, then turned back to Bornis. "So what brings you clear out here?"
His friend's expression darkened. "I went to Faus Himels' place this morning to deliver the plow blade and sheep shears I repaired for him, and I found him and his wife out in the pens looking over a bunch of dead sheep." He stopped and swallowed, his face paling as he searched for the words to continue. "I never have had much of a stomach for slaughtering. It's why I became a blacksmith." He paused again and his eyes took on a haunted look. "There was so much blood that it was hard to tell what the animals were. I've seen sheep killed by wolves and panthers before, but it was never like this."
"What do you mean?" Jase asked, a cold pit settling in his stomach.